Dante, Trump and the moral cowardice of the G.O.P.

President Donald Trump points to a reporter for questions as he speaks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before departing on Friday, July 19, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

One of John F. Kennedy’s favorite quotes was something he thought came from Dante: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”

As it turns out, the quote is apocryphal. But what Dante did write was far better, and it came vividly to mind last week as Republicans failed to take a stand after President Trump’s racist tweets and chants of “Send her back,” directed at Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who immigrated here from Somalia, at a Trump rally in North Carolina.

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In Dante’s Inferno, the moral cowards are not granted admission to Hell; they are consigned to the vestibule, where they are doomed to follow a rushing banner that is blown about by the wind. When Dante asks his guide, Virgil, who they are, he explains:

This miserable way is taken by sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.
They now commingle with the coward angels, the company of those who were not rebels nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.

They are destined to be forgotten. “The world will let no fame of theirs endure,” Virgil explains. “Let us not talk of them, but look and pass.” Dante describes the vast horde who chase after the elusive banner that “raced on so quick that any respite seemed unsuited to it.” Behind the banner, he writes, “trailed so long a file/ of people—I should never have believed/ that death could have unmade so many souls.”

President Trump was not merely using racist tropes; he was calling forth something dark and dangerous.

And to those ranks we can now add all the politicians, pundits and camp followers who refused to take a stand when they were confronted with this stark moral choice posed by Mr. Trump’s racist attacks on four minority freshmen Democratic women.

Despite some feeble attempts at rationalization, there was clarity to the president’s language and his larger intent. Mr. Trump was not merely using racist tropes; he was calling forth something dark and dangerous.

The president did not invent or create the racism, xenophobia and ugliness on display last week; they were all pre-existing conditions. But simply because something is latent does not mean it will metastasize into something malignant or fatal. Just because there is a hot glowing ember does not mean that it will explode into a raging conflagration.

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In a healthy society, that burning ember may not ever be completely extinguished. But the mores, values and taboos of society would keep it controlled, isolated and small. Now Mr. Trump is stoking the fire.

Abraham Lincoln appealed to our “better angels.” Trump has given us permission to indulge our fouler impulses.

Democracy is fragile because we are all an odd mix of prejudices, vices, virtues, bigotries and aspirations. We can be demons or angels. That’s why moral leadership matters; society can go either way. “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either,” argued Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.”

This is why what Mr. Trump is doing is so dangerous and destructive. Abraham Lincoln appealed to our “better angels.” The president has given us permission to indulge our fouler impulses.

And so we have Americans chanting, “Send her back! Send her back!”

Privately, we are told, some Republicans were horrified. But few were willing to speak out publicly. They chose to stand apart.

This is where the G.O.P.’s Faustian bargain has led: Their moral compromises and silence have become a habit.

Someday, we can expect to read lachrymose mea culpas from members of the G.O.P. who will confess that they regretted siding with Mr. Trump or remaining silent, and they will unburden their freighted consciences in memoirs and op-ed pieces.

They will assure us that their silence did not reflect who they really are. But it did because this was the moment when they had to make a choice.

Unfortunately, this is where the G.O.P.’s Faustian bargain has led: Their moral compromises and silence have become a habit. The small surrenders become larger ones until there is nothing left.

Some of them are motivated by fear of the president’s wrath or by the political pragmatism of politicians who are obsessed with self-preservation. Others simply hope to ride out the news cycle, hoping the entire incident will be quickly forgotten.

But at some level, I suspect, they know that this was a defining moment. And it reminds us that while we celebrate political and moral courage, we forget that genuine political courage is vanishingly rare. We remember St. Thomas More but gloss over the fact that he stood virtually alone among his peers in speaking truth to the power of his age. Hilaire Belloc captured the moment:

Most of the great bodies—all the bishops except Fisher—had yielded. They had not yielded with great reluctance but as a matter of course. Here and there had been protests, and two particular monastic bodies had burst, as it were, into flame. But that was exceptional. To the ordinary man of the day, anyone, especially a highly placed official, who stood out against the King’s policy was a crank.

Unlike his colleagues, Thomas More did not make a bargain with his soul.

And those who did? Who remembers them now? As Virgil counseled, “Let us not talk of them, but look and pass.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Annette Magjuka
4 weeks 1 day ago

Yes. And when “corporations are people,” laws supporting big business (outside of a moral ethic) enslaves is all.

John K
4 weeks ago

With all due respect Mr. Sykes, similar things in terms of “moral cowardice” and “the hottest places in hell” could be said about the Democrats. Is not the million unborn lives per year a moral crisis? Just about every Democrat is in favor of access to abortion or if not, a neutral “personally opposed, publicly in favor” Cuomo stance. Is not the hundreds of thousands of lives in the Rust Belt lost to the opioid crisis and other health issues not a crisis?

You’re really a closet liberal otherwise you would admit that the very same things could be applied to the Democrats.

Mark Wothe
4 weeks ago

I don't see any evidence to suggest he's in the closet about it. Have you read the Bulwark?

Gabriel Marcella
4 weeks 1 day ago

A remarkable piece of writing. The wisdom of Dante is timeless. The corruption he describes in the Florence of his time captures the cowardice of the Republican party, which is complicit in the dismantling of American power and influence in the world. Dante is probably joined by the Founding Fathers of 1776 and 1787 in lamenting the dimming of the bright shining light on the hill that is the greatest experiment in democracy called America.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks 1 day ago

Another Trump hit piece! Charles Sykes is well known as an anti Trump writer. He is not very conservative nor an honest writer.
The problem is that the incident is not racist. I know the torturous reasoning involved and that is what it is. But if the person was white with the same attitudes Trump would have said the same thing. Trump has criticized Hillary and Pelosi. Does that make him sexist? And if there was a person not white who expressed the virtues of the United States and endorsed free market capitalism, Trump would have approved the person.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks 1 day ago

So let’s cut the racism nonsense. The real racism in the United States lies with the liberals who are fighting Trump. Racism is just a desperate cry of disparagement now that Russia has disappeared. Trump is certainly far from perfect but criticize him on his objectives and his accomplishments or lack of not a strained interpretations of his behavior or motives. His comment was essentially sarcasm about these women representing nothing of value but continuing to criticize.

Jeff Olefson
4 weeks ago

It was pretty predictable that some Trumpist would come forward to attack Sykes and say it’s not us it’s those liberals. If you bothered to actually read and understand the column you would see Sykes did not criticize his accomplishments. The real question is what kind of inappropriate and even dangerous behavior cannot be rationalized with a “Trump is far from perfect”. What’s next well at least we got our judges and tax cuts? For historical reference, well at least he got the trains to run on time or in the case of Adolf Hitler, well at least he is making Germany proud again and keeping the communists at bay.

Jeff Olefson
4 weeks ago

It was pretty predictable that some Trumpist would come forward to attack Sykes and say it’s not us it’s those liberals. If you bothered to actually read and understand the column you would see Sykes did not criticize his accomplishments. The real question is what kind of inappropriate and even dangerous behavior cannot be rationalized with a “Trump is far from perfect”. What’s next well at least we got our judges and tax cuts? For historical reference, well at least he got the trains to run on time or in the case of Adolf Hitler, well at least he is making Germany proud again and keeping the communists at bay.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

Your comments are one non-sequitur after the other. Yes, Sykes did not say anything about the positive things Trump has done. Why? An honest journalist would. Also the comparison to fascist leaders shows how misguided your comments are. Republicans stand for freedom not state control advocated by fascists and Democrats. It’s the Democrats who are closest to the totalitarian leaders you mention. And it's liberal policy that is the cause of the deterioration of the Black family and the main cause of their problems.

J Jones
2 weeks 6 days ago

Trump on Baltimore and Obama and Presidential Responsibility when the President is Black.
https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/29/us/politics/trump-baltimore.amp.html&ved=2ahUKEwjTlqHr0tzjAhW3HzQIHT5iAzYQiJQBMAB6BAgKEAQ&usg=AOvVaw0NmPkWi1ISDdnQGX7x55_R&ampcf=1

John Rysavy
4 weeks 1 day ago

America is off the wheels again I see with another “political” hit piece.

Jeff Olefson
4 weeks ago

We are in deep trouble when we have a leader who can attack anyone using anything and that is ok but if anyone should push back that is a political hit piece. How would you define Trump’s tweet attacking these four congresswomen?

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

Similar to the things, Schumer and Pelosi do all the time.

Mike Macrie
4 weeks 1 day ago

What I have come to believe is that Trump is not a Racist but a sick Sociopath. He’s not Pro Life or is he a Racist, He’s something more Sinister. He uses people for his own personal gain while keeping his hands clean. Whether it be Michael Cohen, Don McGahn, Jeff Sessions, James Comey, he will use them or try to use them for his own benefit to hold power. Trump displays all the Characteristics of a classic Sociopath:
* Glibness and Superficial Charm
* Manipulative and Conning. They never recognize the rights of others and see their self-serving behaviors as permissible. ...
* Grandiose Sense of Self. ...
* Pathological Lying. ...
* Lack of Remorse, Shame or Guilt. ...
* Shallow Emotions. ...
* Incapacity for Love.
* Need for Stimulation.
Only when they leave the Administration do they speak out and clear their Conscience, as it was with Rex Tillerson, John Kelly, Don McGahn, and now Paul Ryan.

Stanley Kopacz
4 weeks 1 day ago

Trump is a germaphobe. He's a rich guy who doesn't own a dog or any other pet. He doesn't have any empathy for animals, as far as I can see. He's a very weird unit.

Dale Athlon
3 weeks 3 days ago

Trump loves America and Americans. He’s not a sociopath, he loves our nation.

Kevin Murphy
4 weeks 1 day ago

When I see the Democrats start to disown the steady stream of racism, anti-Semitism and condoned violence (Antifa) coming from the Left, then I'll listen to Trump complaints. Until then, it's all hypocrisy.

rose-ellen caminer
4 weeks 1 day ago

The Democrats are not responsible for every comment or action some loony on the Left may have said or done.And most of the so called loony things said by "the Squad", when not taken out of context, make perfect sense.
Trump ,Fox and the Right are conning you; Antifa is not the Dems, and if Antifa attacks someone on the street it has nothing to do with the Dems. But this is what Trump, Fox and right Right do, it's their con; to misdirect you. Meanwhile it is Trump himself who actually does make racist comments and implements racist policies. And it is incumbent on his supporters to explain why they support that.

Al Cannistraro
4 weeks 1 day ago

I would appreciate it if some of the regular Trump supporters here would comment on the following passage from this opinion piece:

"Democracy is fragile because we are all an odd mix of prejudices, vices, virtues, bigotries and aspirations. We can be demons or angels. That’s why moral leadership matters; society can go either way. “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either,” argued Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.”

"This is why what Mr. Trump is doing is so dangerous and destructive. Abraham Lincoln appealed to our “better angels.” The president has given us permission to indulge our fouler impulses.

"And so we have Americans chanting, “Send her back! Send her back!”

"Privately, we are told, some Republicans were horrified. But few were willing to speak out publicly. They chose to stand apart."

J Cosgrove
4 weeks 1 day ago

I don't consider myself a Trump supporter in the sense whatever he does is ok. I really appreciate his tenacity in getting certain things done. I always protest unfair attacks on him and there are plenty here. I disagree on some things he wants to do and often cringe at his manner.

As far as the "send her back" chant, I strongly disapprove because it does not reflect what Trump said and does not advance anything positive. He was trying to point out that many members of Congress are over critical of the Unites States. The actual phrase Trump used was "Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." Trump himself did not say "send her back." The chant is similar to “lock her up” chant which also was unhelpful but certainly not racist. The racist part of this is bogus.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks 1 day ago

As far as your quotes, I am not sure the Solzhenitsyn one is really applicable. After the Lincoln quote, 600,000 died or about 6 million in todays percentage. By the way, Lincoln was hated and vilified even more than Trump by the Democrats and the elites.

rose-ellen caminer
4 weeks 1 day ago

They ARE representing the broken places they came from .That's why they are in Congress , to fix the broken places that they come from. And just because Trump disagrees with their progressive policies, what right does he have to tell them not to do it here, but to do it elsewhere?

Chuck Kotlarz
4 weeks 1 day ago

Ms. Caminer, voters from the four districts may have insight perhaps of interest to the GOP base. Life expectancy in three of the four districts surpasses that of all twenty-eight Right-To-Work states. Life expectancy in the four districts averages nearly four years longer than the senate majority leader’s state.

Christopher Scott
4 weeks 1 day ago

White liberals condescending to people of color for their personal political and economic gain. The liberal elites are interpreting basic language and personal intentions for their cult followers because apparently they think they’re unable to think for themselves ... or they don’t want them to. It’s a clown show.

Chuck Kotlarz
4 weeks 1 day ago

Mr. Scott, do you suppose a 90% federal tax on oligarch income would ensure white liberal elite status closer to that of an ordinary voter?

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

I’m not sure about lowering the elites to the level of the ordinary voter but it would certainly impoverish the ordinary voter who would return to serf status.

Stanley Kopacz
4 weeks ago

Yeah. 90% tax rate. Those 50's were just horrible.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

I am glad you are extolling the 50's when there were "Happy Days" and the Fonz and Rock and Roll began. But, haven't you read the manifesto that says that was the nadir of US history as racism was rampant in the country.
Actually the economic expansion in the US after WWII was due to the inability of most of the world to produce much of anything due to its production being destroyed during the war. That started to change in the late 50's and 60's.

Stanley Kopacz
4 weeks ago

Wow. All of a sudden factors external to the intrinsic natural law miracle of capitalism can be taken into account. But not the Big Take wrt the Indians and the 1% plantation owners using slaves? All that 19th century progress was the capitalist demigod unchained. Or was it? I hear the cherry picking machine a-picking.

J Jones
4 weeks 1 day ago

Thanks to America for publishing this piece. There are lines that cannot be crossed in a democracy. Criticism of that democracy by any and every member of that democracy is NOT one of those lines. Penalizing peaceful dissent is one of those lines; another is abdicating one's role as a leader sworn to protect that democracy by protecting the right to peaceful dissent by every single member of that democracy.

I am not a fan of much of Charlie Sykes' work, and I am grateful for HIS exercise of HIS right to engage in peaceful dissent in our democracy.

Trump, his GOP complicits and those citizens who choose to categorically denounce his language and conduct may succeed in his re-election in 2020.

They will nonetheless have failed as moral actors in this unparalleled moment in US history, and I agree with Sykes that significant numbers of them know it.

History will know it, as will our children and grandchildren as they work to repair the fabric of our country, our democracy and the long-standing tradition that the President of the United States should be a person we might disagree with politically but who adheres to conduct and language which consistently and steadfastly and vehemently reflects a passion for an ever-deepening commitment to strengthen our democratic norms for the benefit and protection and freedom of EVERY citizen and for EVERY nation.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

Headline:

Years Before Trump Ran, Democrats Labeled Republicans As Sub-Human Haters

Glad to see you continue the tradition

Vincent Gaglione
4 weeks ago

Get real. They are Republicans. They acquiesce to whatever serves their personal interests – the public, the poor, the disabled, whomever, be damned! There is about as much diversity of thought among them as there is diversity in a waddle of King penguins.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

Quote from a recent study:

the more educated a Democrat is, according to the study, the less he or she understands the Republican worldview

But maybe you are not educated so your views are correct

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

Also Hans Rosling showed the more educated one was, the less likely they had knowledge of the state of the world. Read Facfulness, Ten reason why we’re wrong about the world

Mary Wood
4 weeks ago

This is rich coming from Charlie "three wives" Sykes. And a guy who supports pro abortion candidates.

Jeff Olefson
4 weeks ago

Mary are you a Trump supporter? Because he has had three wives and we know he had an affair with a porn star? Sykes was not writing about marriage or abortion. And if you are suggesting we discount what he said based upon his marriages you are gonna need to apply that to Trump, Giuliani, Gingrich...

Christopher Scott
4 weeks ago

Which brings up a good point,..do you think if the democrats were in charge Jeffrey Epstein would be sitting in jail? No president has arrested more perverts than Trump so expect more attacks on potus... it’s a diversion, don’t take your eyes off the ball

John K
4 weeks ago

With all due respect Mr. Sykes, similar things in terms of “moral cowardice” and “the hottest places in hell” could be said about the Democrats. Is not the million unborn lives per year a moral crisis? Just about every Democrat is in favor of access to abortion or if not, a neutral “personally opposed, publicly in favor” Cuomo stance. Is not the hundreds of thousands of lives in the Rust Belt lost to the opioid crisis and other health issues not a crisis?

You’re really a closet liberal otherwise you would admit that the very same things could be applied to the Democrats.

Jeff Olefson
4 weeks ago

This piece was not about the democrats? The question is this when we ascent to the pearly gates to account to our maker and have to explain our actions do you think what about the these other people will be accepted as a good excuse?

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

Well, I am glad to see you admit that there will be no Democratic voters going to heaven. So your best chance is being a Republican.

And by the way this piece is all about Democrats whose comments and behavior is what elicited the comments by Trump. Comments and behavior that was condoned by Democrats. Kind of hard to separate that out.

John K
3 weeks 6 days ago

Yes, but in order to come off as attempting to have a balanced viewpoint, you need at least one sentence saying, "Yes. Similar things could be said about the Democrats on abortion and the Rust Belt. But now that Trump and the Republicans are in power..." It's basic journalism. The lack of attempt to do so shows his bias. Plus if you look at his record at the Bulwark, you'll see nothing of this hyperbolic language applied to Democrats' "hottest places in Hell." Sure, nativism and bigotry are serious issues to be condemned. But really, it pales in comparison with the millions of unborn lives killed by abortion, which is condoned and promoted by Democrats.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

This whole discussion has nothing to do about the crudity of Trump's comments but about a meme that must be promulgated that Republican are racists and shouldn't be allowed to have control of government. The whole Muller thing fell apart so now it's on to something else. Never mind that racism (discrimination or beliefs in inferiority of some) is a very minor problem in the US. Except for the family structure problem created by Democrats which is actually quite catastrophic and never mentioned on this site in any article.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

For Sykes not to mention this is indicative of his intellectual and moral short comings. The controversy is a political power play by Democrats to brand Trump and Republicans racist. He also forgot to mention that Ocasio-Cortez called Pelosi a racist and Kamela Harris called Biden a racist. For the least racist country of the developed world, racism is everywhere.

Nicholas Stix
4 weeks ago

I was gladdened to learn that either Charlie Sykes, or his researcher had read a little literature, somewhere along the way.

A little literary gloss does wonders stylistically for a pathetic exercise in triangulation and non sequitur.

Mr. Sykes’ invocation of Dante makes no sense whatsoever, as a condemnation of the president, or the GOP.

Even if it had made sense, Dante was not a prophet, commissioned by God, to spread the word.

“Despite some feeble attempts at rationalization, there was clarity to the president’s language and his larger intent. Mr. Trump was not merely using racist tropes; he was calling forth something dark and dangerous.
“The president did not invent or create the racism, xenophobia and ugliness on display last week; they were all pre-existing conditions.”
Mr. Sykes and I do not live in the same country. I live in New York City, a city where I can walk miles through a shopping district like the Ladies Shopping Mile, and not encounter a single white man employee, and possibly no white American female employees, either.

In my city, it is dangerous for a white man to travel on public transit, even during rush hour, due to violent black racism. 1/2

Nicholas Stix
4 weeks ago

Mr. Sykes defends Ilhan Omar. Ilhan Omar is jihadist scum, and is likely a criminal who entered this country, and attained American citizenship, via fraud. The problem isn’t with American patriots who shout, “Send her back!” The problem is with people like Mr. Sykes, who defend her, and who are loyal to dark powers.
Mr. Sykes has hated Donald Trump since the latter became a Republican.
“Dante, Trump and the moral cowardice of the G.O.P.” is the right title to the wrong essay. Tens of millions of whites voted for Donald Trump to put an end to over 60 years of federally-sanctioned race war against them. But Trump betrayed them.
Mr. Sykes ought to be happy about that, but he earns hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, as a fake conservative in the service of racial socialists, to malign the President. Oh, he probably isn’t a genocidal racist, he just worships Mammon.
The GOP supported the 1964 Quota Act, which reduced whites to second-class citizenship. The GOP then supported the 1965 Third World Act, which reduced whites to third-class citizenship.
The GOP has never repudiated the racism of affirmative action. It talks about “merit,” but believes in, and serves racial spoils to incompetent, racist, non-whites who don’t even vote for it.
My question for Charlie Sykes is the same one I have for the GOP: Why do you hate white people? 2/2

rose-ellen caminer
4 weeks ago

Your attacks on llhan Omar are just another version of Birtherism. Expounded on by Fox.
"Racial socialist"; that's a new one; that must be the latest new term in the up coming right wing propaganda campaign.The rest of your comments is standard white nationalist racist ideology.

Mark Wothe
4 weeks ago

It is simply hilarious that a publication with "America" in the its name (amelioratively one would assume) would print and promote this utter tripe from established hypocrite, anti-American and detestable human being Charlie Sykes.

That's not a very good way to get real Americans to read your blog, guys.

Mark Wothe
4 weeks ago

"Charles Sykes is the founder and editor at large of The Bulwark and a longtime conservative commentator"
Gonna need some references here. The Bulwark is about as far from conservative as is humanly possible, and Charlie Sykes is a garbage human, not a commentator.

michael burke
3 weeks 6 days ago

so, we must leave politics altogether ? No ,then whom do we vote for ? the D are the death culture
proposing each of the 5 no no's of the C Church [abortion, euthenasia, in vitro, gay marriage, embryo experimentization] . I do not agree the tweet was racist, a crude tool of course. But what is more horrible : the pink lighted New York that celebrated Cuomo's signing a bill for all abortion with no protection for the baby who survives ? trump protects freedom of religion [little sisters of the poor] etc.
our choices are terrible because we have sunk into the liberal secular inebriate of autonomy, and now we are almost swallowed by the ooze of public discopy. A Catholic has no place to go in this culture of politics as it now walks like a cyclops, one eyed into paganism

Andrew Strada
3 weeks 6 days ago

Perhaps Mr. Sykes is auditioning to be the house conservative at the New York Times, the Washington Post or MSNBC in case Jennifer Rubin, David Brooks or Nicole Wallace should retire in the not too distant future. The number of frustrated Never-Trumpers is growing rapidly so Mr. Sykes needs an interesting hook, like Dante's Inferno, to distinguish him from all the other applicants. What he seems to be implying is that while he hates President Trump, as all right thinking people do, he hates President Trump in a more interesting and erudite way than the average Never-Trumper does.

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